Spare Tire Around the Middle? Maybe Your Life Is Too Hectic

From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 24, 2000 -- According to scientific research, you may be able to blame your "spare tire" on all the stress you're under. A new study shows that stress actually changes your nervous system and hormones in ways that encourage fat accumulation around the waist. This type of fat is more dangerous than generalized plumpness and has been linked to increased rates of hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes.

In the October issue of Obesity Research, Swedish researchers report that men whose excess pounds accumulate around the waist also tend to have changes in the activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a regulatory system that links the parts of the brain that control metabolism with the adrenal gland, which produces important regulatory hormones. The men with abdominal fat also had changes in a part of the nervous system that helps keep many bodily functions in balance. The investigators think that these brain and hormone (or neuroendocrine) changes might be the result of living with chronic stress.

Lead author Thomas Ljung, MD, tells WebMD that he thinks stress changes the neuroendocrine activity, and this in turn causes the body to store up fat around its midsection. He says that these changes were seen in men with abdominal obesity but not in those who were equally overweight but with more general fat distribution.

"The [abdominally obese] men are either exposed to more stress or have reduced coping mechanisms. I think that long-lasting negative stress is the starting point. Humans were not made to live under conditions of relentless stress, which many people are today. Under such conditions, many people will eat more and gain weight, but certain vulnerable people will have an abdominal distribution of the excess fat, and this is more dangerous than just being generally a little bit fat," Ljung says. He is in the department of heart and lung diseases at Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Goteborg, Sweden.

"In this day of cell phones, voice mail, pagers, and email, it is almost impossible for anyone who tries to keep up not to feel pressured a lot of the time," obesity expert George A. Bray, MD, tells WebMD. "These new technologies have raised the general level of stress. I recommend a stress reduction program for anybody who is trying to lose weight, but it might be particularly important for those with abdominal obesity." Bray is professor of medicine at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La.

"I believe we are likely to see a large increase in stress-related diseases. Abdominal obesity is one of those diseases, and it, in turn, is associated with increased risk for cardiovascular disease and for type 2 diabetes," Ljung says. "My advice to both patients and physicians is to beware of chronic stress. Stop and think about how you are living."